One Tomato at a Time

My energy level at work can be up, normal, or down. When it’s up, things are beautiful. My mind is bubbling over with ideas, I’m enthusiastic about what I’m working on, every little thing I do leads on the next thing in an organic way, and I can work more or less at full speed all day long. There’s so much to do, and so little time, and I fill it up seemingly without any effort at all. Those are the really good days. On a normal day things are more relaxed. I know what I’m working on, I know what happens next, and if I hit a snag I’m also hitting on all cylinders. It’s not as much fun, but it’s OK.

And then there are the down days—the days when I slept poorly the night before, or I’ve been working too hard, or for whatever reason I just don’t seem to have any energy. I have trouble getting started; I have trouble focussing on my work; and once I start focussing, I have trouble maintaining that focus. If I hit a snag, it often stops me dead. On really bad days, I sometimes feeling like I’m shoveling water.

I’ve been fighting off a cold or something for the last week, and the days have been more down than up. Getting started has been hard, and I’ve needed a little help. And this past Monday I remembered something that can help. (God is good.)

It’s this thing called the Pomodoro Technique. You can go and read all about it at the link; there’s a certain amount of hype, and a certain amount of what-might-be-snake-oil (as there seems to be with any time management system), but the core of it works for me. I used it for almost a year some time back, during a period with lots of down days; then I had a long run of normal to up days and stopped using it, because on up days I don’t need it. This week, I needed it.

The core of the technique is the Pomodoro, a slice of work nominally 25 minutes long. “Pomodoro” is Italian for “tomato”; the technique’s author named it after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he uses. The idea is that you work for 25 minutes, and then take a break for 5 minutes, lather, rinse, repeat. You don’t have to concentrate for the rest of the day; you only need to concentrate for the next 25 minutes. And then another 25 minutes, and then another, until finally the whole day has gone by, and you’ve gotten a lot done, 25 minutes at a time.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Usually you spend a Pomodoro at the beginning of the day planning what you’re going to try to get done that day. You estimate how many Pomodoros each task will take, and try not to schedule too many to get done. As you go, you keep track of how many Pomodoros the task actually took. You also keep an inventory of tasks to work on later.

As time goes, you begin to learn how much you can get done in one day, and how long particular kinds of task should take. Your estimates improve, and your sense of accomplishment increases. It’s all good.

Me, I’m not a Pomodoro purist: I don’t try to do everything in Pomodoros, and if an up day comes along I’ll abandon the technique for that day without a qualm. But on days like today, it really helps keep me moving.

You don’t have to use a kitchen timer, of course. There are a variety of Pomodoro-specific apps available, on the web, on your desktop, and on your phone, many of which are free. Some of them attempt to help you with your record keeping (badly, in my experience). All you really need is a timer that will count down for 25 minutes, followed by 5 minutes for the break. Some timers will try to emulate the ticking sound of an old-fashioned kitchen timer; make sure you can turn it off if it annoys you. (I’d go stir.) It’s also nice if you can adjust 25 minute/5 minute pattern to something else; 25 minutes works for me, but others like Pomodoros of other lengths.

I used to use an iPhone app called Focus Time; it’s simple and gets the job done, but used all day long it will your phone’s battery dry. This week, consequently, I’m using a web app called Tomato Timer. It’s simple, effective, runs in my browser, and has a variety of alarm sounds and volumes to choose from. The only problem with it is that the browser window takes up a lot screen space…but that’s what the browser’s “zoom out” feature is for. Put it in its own window, shrink it way down, and put it in the corner of your desktop, and all is good.

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